SDN and the Future of Networking

Joel Stradling – Research Director, Business Network and IT Services

Summary Bullets:

• Demands of innovative collaborative communications and cloud-native applications are placing tremendous pressure on legacy WANs.

• As companies virtualize more and more IT functions and migrate apps to private and public clouds, the resulting network looks very different to legacy static and hub-and-spoke network configurations.

• Corporate networks need to evolve to support greater automation, more self-serve, and better operational simplicity and agility.

• New SD-WAN services are the key to effective control and management of network traffic within disruptive technology domains; such as cloud-native migration, 5G, IoT, big data analytics, augmented reality, and machine learning.

• The new era is identified by networks being applications-led; as opposed to being connectivity-led.


A panel of industry thought leaders gathered at the Vodafone Global HQ in Newbury on October 3, 2018 to address the following questions:

• What does the future of networking look like?

• How will how SD-WANs will make an impact on corporate networks?

• What are the opportunities and challenges in the industry for SD-WAN technology?

The following blog summarizes the main insights and discussion highlights that emerged during the panel debate.

Old Making Way for the New

The majority of existing corporate WANs in use throughout the business world are based on IP/MPLS technologies. In the past several years there has been a strong desire on the part of enterprise buyers of IT and network systems to also leverage Internet VPN, in parallel with private IP VPN services, to take advantage of a far lower cost-base for non-critical corporate data traffic.
The current trend of massive cloud adoption is driving change in the way networks look. SDN began as an inter-data centre technology, but is now quickly spreading to the very edge of the network to support the networks of tomorrow with software-defined wide area networks (SD-WAN). The virtualization of IT and apps is creating new challenges for service-chaining and managing micro services. The future of networks is therefore unfolding very much with SD-WAN as a technological focal point.

Transforming to SDN:

The shift in the industry towards SDN is accelerating. The movement has caused a fundamental change in the way service providers, corporate clients, and their partners build networks. Up until now networks have been static, carrying traffic from the corporate site to cloud data centers and for access to the Internet. The trend towards heavy cloud adoption means that the networks supporting the connectivity and traffic routing part need to be changed frequently and as a consequence far more control is needed. The application of SDN technology is making rapid and frequent changes possible. Self-service and automation are the new buzzwords in networking and the progress being made by network operators in these areas means that virtualized functions and workloads can be moved around allowing for the distribution, for example, of workloads closer to the network edge to give lower latency performance.

SDN gives network operators the tools that needed to control these constantly moving and changing workloads, which can number into the tens of thousands at any single point in time. Customers are beginning to see the same tools and management control service wrap, with dashboards and service portals that really self-empower IT managers and network administrators to make changes to the network in real time. This means that enterprise network and IT administrators can potentially take advantage of bandwidth-on-demand, quickly spin-up or refresh WAN optimization and virtual firewalls, and provisioning policy-controlled connectivity to new remote sites. End users of SD-WAN technologies may also have more room options open to them for either self-managing or monitoring WANs, and for taking advantage of network automation.

The SDN-enabled Digital Enterprise

The volumes and value of network data has never been higher. The value of that data is heralded as the new gold, and businesses will need to have the data available to them to use to make smart decisions, including for example customer touch-points. The amount of data is only set to increase as IoT, 5G, and big data analytics gain momentum. The new generation SDN-enabled digital enterprise will be defined as a company that has the IT tools, cloud-native apps, and SD-WAN platforms overlaying the physical network to operate efficiently at this higher performance paradigm.

Transitioning to SD-WAN

The transition to SD-WAN may seem to be a daunting prospect for IT decision makers. But in fact risk has been greatly reduced for the CIO, because SD-WANs can run over the existing network as an overlay solution (having said that, it is important that the old network can ‘speak’ with the new). As with any network redesign, the first step is an audit to understand what is currently in place and for what purpose. Step two should be about mapping out a new network topology, and beginning the process of designing an SD-WAN overlay to run on top of the existing system with hooks for interoperability. The final stage needs to be around moving data and connectivity management control over to the new SD-WAN overlay seamlessly with minimal disruption.

The end goal of software-defined everything needs to be part of a well-backed company mission over time, but the first steps need to look at how to achieve operational simplicity and to automate as much as is possible. All businesses are facing disruption and technology leaders within companies need to deal with that by achieving agility with network & IT. Today WANs are about connecting users to application, but as the world adopts connected things, the networks will be increasingly more about connecting things to applications.

A View to the Future

Commercial models for software defined network functions are sure to experience major changes as a result of apps calling on the network to solicit the appropriate performance metrics such as latency, bandwidth, traffic prioritization rules, security policies, and availability. In the future this will mean that ISVs will be able to release apps onto a network that can be spun up flexibility as VNFs and supported to the customer premise on universal customer premises equipment (CPE). This opens up the market and consequently a multitude of developers will be able to develop network features. Enterprises will have far more choice as a result in terms of features and functions but also flexible commercial choice as vendors and software developers compete for market position. Vodafone predicts that in the future more things will be connected to networks than people. We agree and also assert that the company’s considerable mobile networks and fixed infrastructure give Vodafone a very strong position to capitalize on the connected things world. Managing the sheer volume of connected things plus apps will only be manageable via an automated platform, where self-healing networks are underpinned with SDN. But customers need to be looking for managed service provider partners that are able to help move towards the path in a gradual transition. Service providers and partner vendors thus need to be putting customer-centricity first and foremost, and avoiding lock in with open standards programmable networking. Finally, customers can also be pushing service providers for a service-assurance SLA with links to business outcomes rather than the more traditional physical network performance credit SLA approach.

*Source: Future of Networks Live Panel Debate, Vodafone Global HQ Newbury, UK, October 3, 2018

Click the following link to watch a full video recording of the panel debate: Vodafone SDN Live Panel Debate


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